Businesses and Complex Adaptive Systems

trillium in an old-growth forest

Can businesses be designed like complex adaptive systems? This is the question that Roger L. Martin explores in his new book When More Isn’t Better: Overcoming America’s Obsession with Economic Efficiency.

The book opens much like Mariana Mazzucato’s The Value of Everything–it opens with a long critique of our current myopic approach to economics education. This narrow understanding of economics leads to an over-valuing of economic efficiency that then guides us in how we set up and run businesses. Martin argues that this over-valuing of efficiency has unexpected and undesirable consequences like an income inequality ratio that’s grown out of control.

In the solutions section of the book, Martin draws from the field of sustainability and argues that businesses ought to be designed more like complex adaptive systems–designed to maintain diversity and to encourage periodic tweaks or tunings. Finally, Martin understands the roles of multiple stakeholders in the design of business and addresses them one by one in targeted chapters for business leaders, government leaders, educators, and citizens. That’s smart.

It’s a lovely book with a winning combination of lofty goals + practical steps to achieving them.